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Health

David Attenborough: Plastic Pollution Is Killing a Million People a Year


Why Global Citizens Should Care 
Plastic pollution, as this report highlights, not only impacts on the UN’s Global Goals that work to protect the environment — it also impacts everything from Goal 3 for health and well-being; Goal 6 for clean water and sanitation; Goal 9 for industry, innovation, and infrastructure; Goal 11 for responsible consumption and production; and many more. Join the movement by taking action here to tackle plastic pollution, and help end extreme poverty by 2030. 

Thanks to momentous global efforts from campaigners, activists, governments, and many more, most of us are now well aware of the harmful impact that plastic pollution is having on marine life

TV broadcaster David Attenborough has been widely hailed for really bringing the issue into the public eye, through his 2017 documentary series Blue Planet II. 

Now, Attenborough has lent his voice to a new report that’s one of the first to highlight the impact that plastic pollution is having on the health and well-being of people globally — with a specific focus on the world’s poorest. 

The report — published on Tuesday from charities Tearfund, Fauna & Flora International, WasteAid, and the Institute of Development Studies, based at the University of Sussex — calls plastic pollution a “public health emergency.” 

It sets out some pretty terrifying statistics, and goes on to outline the actions that key players — governments, businesses, and individuals — can take to help reduce the impact.

Around the world, according to the new research from Tearfund, between 400,000 and a million people in developing countries are dying every year because of diseases and accidents linked to waste being poorly managed. 

At the upper end of the estimate, that’s a death every 30 seconds. 

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Other shocking statistics included in the report say that, also every 30 seconds, the UK throws away two double-decker busloads of plastic waste. And in the same time, 30 double-decker busloads of plastic waste are burned or dumped in developing countries. 

Attenborough, as vice president of Fauna & Flora International, wrote a foreword to the report, in which he calls plastic pollution an “unfolding catastrophe that has been overlooked for too long.”  

“Humankind’s ability to produce this material on an industrial scale far outstrips our ability to manage it, and as a consequence plastic is choking our rivers and seas,” he writes. 

And he highlights that this is particularly true in poorer countries, where the ability to manage waste is inevitably overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of plastic being used.” 

He writes: “In turn, this is causing serious illness and even death for countless people and wild species.” 

Health

According to the report, 2 billion people lack access to properly regulated solid waste collection (1 in 4 people globally) while a further billion people don’t have controlled waste disposal — meaning that their waste might be collected, but it’s then disposed of somewhere that’s not safe. 

In fact, it adds, “in the poorest countries, about 93% of waste is burned or discarded in roads, open land, or waterways.”

When not properly managed, says the report, waste can have a devastating impact on people’s health in many different ways. 

1. Blocking waterways and drains

The build up of rubbish in waterways and sewage systems can cause flooding. In turn, this can result in waterborne diseases like cholera and other diarrhoeal diseases, and accidents like drowning. 

In Accra, in Ghana, for example, severe flooding as a result of blocked waterways lead to a cholera outbreak in 2011 that killed 100 people, according to the Telegraph

2. Diarrhoael disease

Specifically, the report highlights that mismanaged waste doubles the incidence of diarrhoeal disease for people living nearby. Diarrhoeal disease is the second leading cause of death globally in children under 5. 

3. Mosquitos, flies, and rats

Where rubbish accumulates, it can create an ideal breeding ground for disease-carrying flies, mosquitos, and vermin. Mosquitoes spread malaria and dengue. Flies carry and transmit diseases like typhoid fever, and tuberculosis. And rats spread rabies and plague. 

4. Burning waste

With limited options for disposing of waste, burning rubbish is common. 

When openly burned, plastic releases pollutants that increase the risk of diseases like heart disease and cancer, respiratory problems, skin and eye diseases, nausea and headaches, and damage to the reproductive and nervous systems. 

The World Health Organisation estimates outdoor air pollution to be responsible for around 3.7 million early deaths a year — and it’s believed that burning rubbish could be connected to around a fifth of these deaths. 

5. Dangers of informal dumpsites

The report highlights that dump sites themselves can bring risk for people who live and work nearby — with many relying on rubbish collection and sorting at dump sites for an income. 

In 2017, landslides at dumps caused 150 known deaths. 

6. Land pollution

As they break down, plastics become what’s known as microplastics — pieces of plastic that are smaller than 5mm. At this size, plastic waste can enter water and soil and enter the food chain. 

The report points out that it’s not yet fully realised how ingesting microplastics impacts human health. 


Livelihoods

As well as the impact on human health, according to the report, plastic pollution is also harming livelihoods and economies in developing countries. 

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) believes the economic costs associated with ocean-based consumer plastic pollution amounts to about US$13 billion every year — through things like revenue losses to fisheries, and marine tourism industries. 

The main industries the report highlights as being at risk from plastic pollution are tourism, agriculture, and fishing. 

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Studies cited in the report have found that up to a third of cattle and half of goats in developing countries have eaten “significant amounts” of plastic. 

“When plastic is swallowed by animals it does not decompose in their digestive tracts,” explains the report. “It leads to bloating, a host of adverse health effects, and eventually death by starvation. This has dire economic consequences for farmers.” 

Meanwhile, for fishing, it emphasises that there is a gap in research in understanding to what extent plastic pollution impacts the up to 820 million people globally who directly and indirectly rely on fisheries for income.

Climate Change and Land Pollution

The wide-ranging report also touches on the issue that everyone’s talking about: climate change. 

Global plastic production reportedly emits 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year — more than the UK’s total carbon footprint. 

“The true figure may be much higher: emissions from backyard burning of waste are not included in most current emissions inventories, despite research revealing that in several developing countries they dwarf all other sources of carbon emissions combined,” adds the report. 

The World Bank has said solid waste was responsible for a further 5% of global emissions in 2016. 

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While the impact of plastic pollution on marine wildlife has now been fairly well documented, the new report highlights that there’s evidence to suggest the impacts of microplastics on freshwater animals can be as “diverse and harmful” as those for marine species. 

On land, reads the report, improperly managed plastic waste ends up in fields, waterways, hedgerows, trees, and other areas. 

“Piles of plastic pollution and waste release a toxic liquid runoff called leachate, which can contaminate soil and groundwater, and plastic also poses significant ingestion, choking, and entanglement hazards to wildlife,” reads the report. 

In his foreword, Attenborough emphasises that plastic pollution is a global problem — and calls for leadership “from those who are responsible for introducing plastic to countries where it cannot be adequately managed,” as well as international action to “support the communities and governments most acutely affected by this crisis.”


Solutions

As well as highlighting the problems, the report also includes recommendations for key players in the fight against plastic pollution: governments in developing countries; governments in developed countries; companies; and citizens. 

Governments in developing countries

These governments have a key role to play in regulating plastic produced and used in their countries, according to the recommendations, but also in ensuring waste is sustainably managed. 

“Developing country governments have often lacked resources, but it’s also fair to say that waste management often hasn’t been a priority,” reads the report. 

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“This is beginning to change and many of the solutions are being pioneered in the Global South, by the nations and communities most affected by this crisis,” it adds, highlighting the bans and taxes on single-use plastic bags in Rwanda and Kenya. 

Further recommendations include: 

  • Setting out national strategies for plastics and waste management.
  • Incentivising innovative product designs to cut out plastic.
  • Working with businesses to ramp up their responsibility.
  • Increasing political and financial resources available for waste management. 

Governments in developed countries

“Plastic pollution is a consequence of the take-make-dispose model of economic development birthed and exported by developed countries,” says the report. 

“Furthermore, for years many developed countries, faced with the problem of too much plastic waste, too little capacity to recycle, and a lack of demand for recycled plastic, have exported the problem to poorer countries as a key strategy to deal with domestic post-consumer waste.” 

The report points out that, right now, there isn’t a mechanism for holding countries to account for the impacts of plastic waste that they export — particularly to countries less able to manage waste.  

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Meanwhile, it adds, just 0.3% of Official Development Assistance (ODA) is spent on waste management. 

“ODA in this area represents a huge and largely untapped opportunity to accelerate progress towards the SDGs,” it says.

Further recommendations include: 

  • Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, which help drive production of “virgin plastic”.
  • Increasing ODA for waste management from 0.3% to 3%, meaning all 2 billion people without waste collection could be reached.
  • Ensuring that the export of domestic waste is minimised, and that facilities to deal with exported waste are in place in the receiving countries. 

Companies

But it’s not just governments that have a responsibility to help curb plastic pollution, according to the report. 

“Multinational consumer goods companies carry most responsibility for the plastic waste crisis,” it reads, saying that companies drive up production of single-use plastic packaging, while “doing little” to sustainably manage the waste they’re introducing.

The report also highlights that these companies have “started to acknowledge that there is a problem” and have made some voluntary commitments as a result — like the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment launched in October 2018. 

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These commitments are a “step forward”, however, they are “relatively vague and weak and tend to focus on recycling rather than reducing the usage of single-use plastics.” 

“People in developing countries have no choice but to burn or dump plastics,” said Joanne Green, senior policy adviser at Tearfund. “We want companies to clean up their act and stop producing single-use plastic and collect one piece of plastic for every one they produce.” 

Further recommendations include: 

  • By 2020, reporting on the number of single-use plastic products they use and sell in each country. 
  • Reducing this amount by half, country by country, by 2025. 
  • By 2022, ensuring that one single-use plastic product is collected for every one sold, to encourage collection, re-use, recycling, and composting. 
  • Working in partnership with waste pickers to create safe jobs. 

Citizens

Each of us individually also has a role to play, according to the report, through using our “voices and actions to persuade governments and companies to make the changes outlined in this report.” 

The report also, however, promotes lifestyle changes to reduce single-use plastics. 

“By making changes and talking about them, social norms can be changed, which also opens up political space for governments and multinational businesses to act,” it adds. 

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Further recommendations for the public include: 

  • Writing to your MP and ask them to take action against plastic pollution.
  • Taking part in community litter collection and beach clean-ups.
  • Cutting out single-use plastics where possible, such as disposable coffee cups, shopping bags, and water bottles.
  • Buying loose fruit and veg, rather than packaged.
  • Buying from ethical companies that are working to reduce their plastic use. 

Attenborough ends his contribution to the report with an optimistic reminder that “if there is one thing humans are adept at, it is finding clever solutions to the conundrums we face.” 

He writes: “It is high time we turn our attention fully to one of the most pressing problems of today — averting the plastic pollution crisis — not only for the health of our planet, but for the wellbeing of people around the world.”